Latest Blog Posts

by Bill Gibron

16 May 2009


When DVD first arrived as a home video format, the notion of added content was its biggest selling point. Fans of films that had previously been presented sans extras were now salivating - cinematically speaking - over the wealth of information this new presentation paradigm could provide. And indeed, throughout the years, companies have made it their goal to take favored titles and reissue them with a larger and larger assortment of bonus features. Now comes Blu-ray, a technology that allows even more information to be packed onto each plastic covered aluminum disc - and with it, the clear notion of digital features overkill. A prime example of this desire to overindulge comes with Lionsgate’s latest release of Terminator 2: Judgment Day. While this is not the first time the movie has been offered in a “special edition” package, the sheer wealth of material here is enough to make a motion picture aficionado sit up and shout “No More!”

For those unfamiliar with the genre-changing effort, Terminator 2: Judgment Day is everything writer/director James Cameron’s first installment in the burgeoning franchise offered times 20. It’s bigger, more ambitious, loaded with special effects (including the then novel seamless introduction of CGI), and takes the story of a time traveling robot bent on assassinating the man responsible for a rebellion in a future war between humans and machines and twists the allegiances and the possible outcomes. It offered bodybuilder turned cultural superstar Arnold Schwarzenegger a chance to expand on his iconic role, brought newcomers Edward Furlong and Robert Patrick into the mix, and made Linda Hamilton into a lean, mean female fighting badass. With action amped over into warp drive and stunning visual acumen, Cameron reset the standard for future shock thrillers, something follow-up filmmakers have been cribbing since its debut 18 years ago.

by Bill Gibron

26 Apr 2009


While sports reporters have sat back and lamented laboriously about the apparent death of “the sweet science” (aka, boxing), mixed martial arts and its various pugilistic paradigms (cage fighting, pit fighting, bare knuckles, etc.) have slowly taken over the squared circle demographic. Returning the art of kicking someone’s ass to the days of no holds barred bedlam, this new breed of brawl is like Thunderdome without the random Tina Turner appearances. It’s pure brutality and body builder frescos, aggression laced with nothing except amped adrenalin. Now, in an attempt to broaden their brawny appeal, certain MMA superstars have made a movie. Entitled Never Surrender, it’s as shameless as it is packed with the kind of product a videogame fed fight fan of this new style of smackdown would adore. 

Diego Carter has just won the championship belt in his professional cage fighting division. How does he celebrate? He hooks up with some random Russian babe at a club and ends up competing in an illegal underground fight tournament. The stakes? Lots of cash - tax free - and the “use” of a sexual consort. If you win, you get your opponent’s bed buddy for the night. If you lose - well, Diego never loses, so that’s not important. While his friends and brother obsess over his whereabouts, our hero continues to kick butt and sample the “spoils” of his victories. But when he learns that the ladies are white slaves to the competition’s director, an evil man named Seifer, and that there is really no hope of escape, Diego decides to settle things once and for all - and there’s only one place where he meters out his brand of justice…in the ring!

Never Surrender is perfect man cave entertainment. It’s all fisticuffs and fetching females in various states of undress. It’s testosterone fueled with ludicrousness, a movie so unabashedly aimed at the crotch of its potential viewers that it barely comes up for some fresh, musk free air. The brainchild of former champion/fighter extraordinaire Hector Echavarria (who wrote, produced, directed AND stars here), this is merely an excuse for 89 breezy minutes of sex and violence. When Diego and his pals aren’t messing up wannabes who think they can challenge their well chiseled sense of propriety, they’re beating the snot out of each other in ADD edited action scenes. It has to be said that, as a filmmaker, Echavarria gets the concept of celluloid clashes right. His fights are gladiatorial in nature, ebbing and flowing before faces are smashed directly into the canvas.

He also loves the ladies. While the primary casting commitment needed to be an actress here revolves around a desire to show off your dirty pillows, our director makes the most of his monkey business. It’s as if Zalman King stepped off the set of Red Shoe Diaries circa 1992 and decided to make Bloodfist IX: Tits and Tap Outs. The longue lizard muzak in the background. The emphasis on nubile flesh being literally manhandled by battle weary hunks. If it weren’t for the post-modern LA/Las Vegas setting, you’d swear this was some kind of perverse peplum. Scattered throughout are Eschavarria’s pals - men with names like Georges “Rush” St-Pierre, Anderson “The Spider” Silva, BJ “The Prodigy” Penn, and someone this critic has actually heard of, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson. Together, they turn a nonstop barrage of barely believable elements into a grand goofy guilty pleasure.

The biggest props, however, need to go to Patrick Kilpatrick as the vile, villainous Seifer. This is a meat puppet who clearly believes every sentiment slipping out of his chiseled, cauliflowered façade. Though he’s not a professional fighter, he has the look of someone who has used his biceps instead of his brains to solve problems. Attempting a passable Eastern European accent (lots of V-ed “W"s here), he comes across as malevolence housed in a steroided stump of a human being. He’s the reason we care about anything here. His omnipresent threat, positioned against the inevitability of a last act showdown, pushes Never Surrender forward where it would otherwise stumble and stop.

As for our multifaceted lead, Echavarria suffers from his resemblance to another ‘80s icon. When you squint your eyes and add a pronounced Bronx honk, this Argentine athlete looks striking like Andrew Dice Clay, down to the slicked back hair and chest forward persona. If he wasn’t spewing Shaolin style proverbs about being true to yourself, you’d swear he’d be cracking wise with curse-word laden nursery rhymes. Otherwise, he’s like the rest of the fighters present - capable, if not very polished. They can definitely stand tall during the well choreographed fight scenes. But give them a ream of dialogue, or even worse, a silent sequence where they must react to something off camera, and they turn into Carl Lewis throwing out the first pitch at a 2003 Seattle Mariners’ game. They’re not bad, just a little befuddled by thinking with anything other than their mitts.

As for the DVD, Lionsgate does little to celebrate this attempt at cinema. There’s a nice, EPK-like Making-of, which tends to let the montages, and not the cast and crew, do the talking. Then there’s “Anatomy of a Fight”, which does a much better job of explaining Echavarria’s directing style and the amount of work that went into ‘faking’ these fights. Last but definitely least, the horrid half-metal musings of a band known as 12 Stones gets a chance to remind us of how awful the opening song is by offering “Adrenaline” as an actual video. Joy. What would have been nice is a commentary track, Echavarria and his fellow fighters settled down to explain their love of MMA and the sport in general. This would help those outside the mixed martial arts sphere of influence understand the men involved, and the attraction to such brazen brutality.

If all you want is groin-grabbing entertainment that never even attempts to engage you on an intellectual level, then Never Surrender will be your flawless fight club companion. It’s unapologetic at delivering exactly what you expect from a movie made up of MMA members, and it delivers said viciousness with enough panache and bare bodkin to serve its demographic very well indeed. As it continues to put traditional boxing in its place, as it removes the tag of art from anything having to do with the muscular destruction of another human’s being, mixed martial arts moves closer and closer to the kind of professional “status” that wrestling once enjoyed - a massive, multimedia spectacle that was eventually undone by the inability to deny how staged it all was. This genre is far from fake. Still, it has a way to go to achieve universal appeal - and Never Surrender is an excellent example of why.

by Bill Gibron

16 Apr 2009


In independent film, emotion is everything. Since budgets don’t allow for much visual flair, locational variance, or narrative diversity, movies of this nature must rely on people, their personalities, and the feelings that derive from same to get the message across. Most of the time, that’s all said cinema has to offer. Originally released as Rigged, but now renamed Fight Night, Jonathan Dillon’s feature film debut falls into a lot of the standard outsider traps. The cinematography is desaturated to the point of almost nonexistence, and the script (by Splinter scribe Ian Shorr) is so desperate to be a post-modern Million Dollar Baby that it practically exudes Eastwood’s sweat. But if you cast aside the obvious attempts at anti-mainstream grit and faux fictional realism, you find a surprisingly intelligent and heartfelt film. Too bad then that the boxing blocks the audience from really getting to know these marginal characters.

For Michael Dublin, the last few years have been a blur. Since leaving the employment of gangster fight promoter Clark Richter, he’s been trying to hustle matches in the highly illegal underground boxing scene. Unfortunately, his lack of ethics and smooth talk swagger gets him in more trouble that his pugilists can make up for. After a particularly pesky con, Dublin is saved by gritty, no nonsense gal Katherine Parker. Quick with her hands and lethal when need be, our huckster sees instant success. Indeed, within weeks, the newly named “Kid Vixen” is the talk of the lawless scarp circuit. Naturally, Richter is aware of the situation, and does whatever he can to preserve his power. But as Parker continues winning, the heavy can no longer ignore her potential. Dublin also sees dollar signs, but his ex-boss may be about to make an offer he can’t refuse…that is, if he wants to live.

Rigged/Fight Night is as schizophrenic as its two names suggest. One moment, we are watching a waif like young woman beat the ever loving snot out of some roided up Central Casting cliché. She even battles a meat puppet whose cowboy hat becomes an object of comedic personal pride. But then writer Shorr and direct Dillon drop all the backdoor Fight Club junk and actually let the characters talk. What comes out is so intriguing, so against everything else the movie wants to accomplish that you can’t help but be thrown off a little. For all their faults, their complete and utter cinematic contrivance and lack of real world authenticity, Dublin and Parker are interesting, especially when they stop talking shop and start talking…life. Had Rigged removed 10 or 15 minutes of the so-called action sequences and stuck with the story of a small town boy struggling to escape his past with the help of an equally alienated girl, we’d have something special. Instead, Dillon tries to have it both ways, and as a result, he undermines each,

Indeed, the fight scenes require a massive grain of suspension of disbelief seasoning. It’s not that Parker couldn’t contend with some of the beef sides she’s paired against. No, she’s so dominating, so Mike Tyson in her proposed talent that there’s no suspense in what transpires within the squared circle. It’s all choppy edited, thrash power musical scoring, and our duo walking away with fattened wallets. Even when her opponent is evenly matched (the aforementioned spit-kicker), she’s unbelievable - literally. Dublin also offers his own unique set of problems. He’s a fairly inept trickster, unable to get away with many of the scams we see him pull. It makes one wonder how he managed to survive this long, especially with the villainous reach of Richter being so overpowering. Indeed, this is one bad guy who has to be actually beaten…to be beaten.

Since the neo-noir dramatics don’t quite gel, it’s up to the more personal stuff to save Rigged/Fight Night, and it almost does. Indeed, thanks to Chad Ortis’ Tom Cruise take on Dublin and Rebecca Neienswander’s “is she or isn’t she” sexual ambiguity, we are willing to follow our leads through some fairly precarious plotpoints. There is an initial meeting where the two have a jailhouse talk that’s quite effective and a long road trip and eventual bus ride gives them other moments of meaningful conversation. Sadly, the film fails to find the same balance within the ancillary characters. Dublin’s mother is introduced and then almost immediately swept away, while an important woman with whom our hero has a history gets equally short shrift. Sadly, Parker’s past is all inference - talk without a face or performance to help us understand. Even an eventual homecoming is vague.

And then there is the look of this film. Cranking down the color to make everything bleak and monochromatic would definitely work had Dillon understood the first thing about black and white cinematics. Instead, this is a clear case of an almost homemade digital production getting its glare turned off to try and make something visually profound. It doesn’t work. The style by DP Hanuman Brown-Eagle announces itself so often that you get tired of the attention grabbing. Add in the less than effective subplots involving Richter, his link to Dublin, and their last act showdown and you can see where Rigged goes astray. Even with a name change, this is the kind of movie that gives other similarly mounted efforts a real case of the respectability heebie jeebies. You can just see the other filmmakers, desperate to get their dreams off the ground, looking at this overly ambitious attempt and more or less giving up.

Still, there is something inherently attractive about the relationship between our two leads. It’s not sexual - that is made clear many times. It’s also not professional, since only one party to the agreement holds up their end of the bargain. And it’s definitely not spiritual, since neither character has much of a soul. Indeed, the real allure of Rigged (or Fight Night - whatever you want to call it) is the growing connection between marginalized members of society’s fringe. We don’t quite root for Dublin and Parker as much as decide not to root against them and no matter who comes out of the woodwork to threaten their pact, there’s never a real fear that they won’t be there for each other. In a genre that relies on sentiment over most other motion picture possibilities, this movie makes a lot of decent decisions. It’s the ones that don’t work which ultimately threaten its entertainment viability.

by Bill Gibron

11 Apr 2009


To paraphrase a famous quote by one Homer J. Simpson, family is the cause of, and the solution for, all of life’s problems. Issues between parent and child, sibling and sibling, adults and children more or less rule and ruin our sense of self. One day, we’re happy go lucky. The next, we’re dealing with psychological trauma so deep seeded and scaring that it feels like it came directly from the darkest recesses of the womb. As a result, the problems between relatives and crazed kinfolk have sparked dozens of artistic sentiments, from sad songs and symphonies to comic/tragic motion pictures. As part of their seventh outing as humor independents, the gang at Cinematic Titanic have tapped into the bizarre Asian awkwardness of Blood of the Vampires. And as a subtext to their spoofing, the always plentiful wit centers around issues that run thicker than one’s own vein vermouth.

During a luxuriant party for neighbors and friends Don Enrique Escodero is taken ill. On his almost-death bed, he warns his two children, son Eduardo and daughter Leonore, that his will mandates the burning of the family home to the ground. Why? Well, you see, dad has a little secret that he intends to take to his grave. Apparently, the kid’s mother didn’t die as previously stated. No, she fell victim to a crazy curse which only affects the females of the clan. In fact, Don Enrique has the matriarch hidden in a secret basement crypt, living in a coffin. That’s right - Mom’s a vampire and Leonore is apparently destined to become one as well. As the two children try to appease the demands of their specific boy/girl friends, their mother gets loose and starts sucking on the citizenry. Before long, Eduardo and his honey are “infected”, and they intend to turn Lenore as well. Luckily, her main man Daniel is there to help, even from beyond the grave.

Like most movies made in a foreign land while relying on elements wholly Western and unnatural to their culture, Blood of the Vampires (a Philippine production meant to mimic early 20th century Mexico - no, really) is one mixed-up mess. From its hate crime like depiction of subservient slaves (nothing more than actors greased up with very bad - and very obvious - black face) to the weird folklore fashion vampirism is introduced (there’s no main ghoul, just a traditional ‘curse’ that seems to function whenever and however it wants to), director Gerardo de Leon and his capable cast think they’re making a standard cinematic melodrama. There’s so much hand wringing over who will and can get married, so much personal palpitation over the notion of Mom living like an animal in the basement that we hardly get any horror. Instead, there’s confrontation and conflict, but no creeps.

Perhaps the oddest aspect of the film is not the various side characters running around with fake fangs in their mouth. Nor is it the incredibly icky sequence where son Eduardo actually lets his Mammy sink her psycho teeth into his neck (incest never seemed so disgusting and unsavory). No, the real brain burner here is the prevalent, one could say overwhelming use of black face and racially insensitive make-up on various extras. Somehow, this movie got it into its thick little skull that turning all the servants into Al Jolson (sans Southern fried accent) was a brilliant bit of period piece recreation. Of course, how dressing actors up like chocolate covered versions of their Asian selves recalls Mexico 100 years ago is anyone’s guess. Still, Blood of the Vampires indulges in such ethnic slander openly and willfully. All needle incisors aside, it’s the film’s most unconscionable calculation.

Family and faux Africans therefore become the main focus for the always hilarious CT tribe. As with past installments in the DVD only series, we continue to get introductory material that explains away some of the concept’s premise. Clearly, Joel Hodgson, Trace Beaulieu, Frank Conniff, J. Elvis Weinstein, and Mary Jo Pehl are part of some giant experiment to give children of the future riffed versions of every film ever made. Of course, while digital copies of the Godfather trilogy metaphysically merge and spoil in storage chambers (a classic opening gag), our heroes have to tolerate incredibly crappy films like Vampires. Elsewhere, the single “stop-gap” sketch features Weinstein brings out a bottle of booze - and Conniff breaking his 22 year old AA vows. In between is the classic comedy stylings that made Mystery Science and its various offshoots so gosh darn popular.

Indeed, the best thing about Cinematic Titanic, outside the abundant laughs, is the feeling of familiarity and the accomplishment that comes with skill. All of these performers are so expert in their craft, so freewheeling with their wit, that they can turn anything into a joke. And since much of this humor here centers on familial dysfunction, parent/child peculiarities, pre-marital strife and old world ritual, along with abundant hate crimes, there’s no lack of material for these masters. Indeed, one of the downsides to the Cinematic Titanic collection is that, outside of major studio support or distribution, self-financing and releasing equates with limited additional content. Here, a new feature (“Extras”) is actually nothing more than a collection of trailers that one can already access online. In addition, smaller budgets mean less room for sketches. Perhaps one day we will actually get to see the actual inside of the gang’s underground think tank.

Until then, as long as Hodgson and his pals have access to material and an outlet for it, Cinematic Titanic should do more than survive - it should thrive. Purists who pounce whenever one of their prized schlock sensations is giving the in-theater shaft should really just shut up. Sure, this may be the one and only time film fans see your fabled foreign neckbiters film starring overly tanned Philippinos playing superstitious Hispanics, but when the results are as reprehensible as Blood of the Vampires, your passion is definitely misplaced (this is, after all, a movie that lets the famous monsters walk around in the daylight and see themselves in the mirror). It’s very similar to the kind of uproar one experiences when family goes fetid for the sake of individual angst or anxiety. Such biological links indeed create both benefits and detriments. In the case of Cinematic Titanic, however, they’re nothing but fodder for genius. 

by Bill Gibron

5 Apr 2009


As a rule of cinematic thumb, in the CG genre, there’s Pixar…and then there’s everyone else. Or sure, some studios - Fox, Dreamworks - can claim massive commercial success, and the occasional bit of visual inspiration, but when you weigh the aesthetic qualities of, say, an Incredibles or a Ratatouille against the purely for profit marginalizing of Monsters vs. Aliens or Ice Age, the creative differences are staggering. For some reason, the San Francisco based company recently purchased by Disney for a massive amount of money just can’t do anything wrong. Even their lesser works (at least, in the eyes of some cynics) like Cars and A Bug’s Life beam with imagination and novelty. It would be nice to say that Universal’s recent attempt at capitalizing on the computer for making its cartoons - an adaptation of the children’s book The Tale of Despereaux - was as good as something like Finding Nemo or Wall-E. Instead, it’s merely a small step above other fairy tale attempts like Shrek, or Hoodwinked.

In the kingdom of Dor, soup is everything. There is even a yearly celebration of all things broth and stew. But when a visiting rat named Roscuro accidentally frightens the Queen to death, the King bans all soup and all vermin. For some reason, this causes his entire country to suffer under relentless dark clouds and endless, agonizing drought. Even his usually jovial daughter, Princess Pea, longs for happier times. In the meanwhile, Roscuro finds himself exiled to the dungeon, where he takes up with the rest of the rat population. He eventually meets a little mouse named Despereaux Twilling who, unlike the rest of his kind, doesn’t scurry or cower in the presence of people. Curious to a fault, this tiny critter with the massive ears and a giant heart befriends the Princess. He promises to help her. But when an ugly servant girl betrays her Highness, the rats decide to get even. It is up to the unlikeliest of heroes to help.

Like the title character in the story it tells, The Tale of Despereaux (new to DVD) is a noble effort that more or less manages to create a kind of instantly likable post-modern fable. Unlike previous narratives set in those mystical lands “once upon a time”, Kate DiCamillo’s yarn is all about bravery, loyalty, courage, and forgiveness. If it wasn’t set inside a visually striking cartoon realm, we’d swear we were watching some clichéd After School Special. With an interesting vocal cast including the good (Emma Watson, Tracey Ullman), the bad (Matthew Broderick, Tony Hale) and the just plain weird (Dustin Hoffman, Stanley Tucci, Christopher Lloyd), co-directors Sam Fell and Robert Stevenhagen try desperately to make this universe appear pulled from an intricate hand scrolled manuscript. The colors are washed out and tinged with gold, the character design drawn directly from old Victorian sketches and full physical exaggeration.

And for a while, it works. We get drawn into the details of Dor, sit astonished at the intricacies of the similarly styled Mouse and Rat Worlds. We marvel at the framing and composition, enjoying the forced perspective of seeing everything from a tiny rodent’s point of view. Sure, we sometimes have to overlook some less than articulate movement on behalf of the characters (the film was rushed into production, with only two years to complete it), and there are times when the facial work is so realistic it’s almost scary (this is especially true of Robbie Coltrane’s grieving jailer Gregory). Yet just as we are prepared for something seminal, just as Fell and Stevenhagen appear poised to deliver something really epic, The Tale of Despereaux remembers its ‘educational’ themes and resorts to retelling them over and over again. It doesn’t help that narrator Sigourney Weaver is on hand to hammer them home as well.

Besides, Broderick’s onscreen doppelganger isn’t much of a main subject. He seems passive and unwilling to participate until the end, allowing aspects of the story to shift wildly out of sync before jumping in to join the fun. Instead, Despereaux is rather self-indulgent, his supposed non-conformist bent meant to hide what appears to be a rather arrogant streak. And since Broderick’s voice is as meek as the kind of animal he’s essaying, things grow even more “mousy”. Kids will adore his cute, cuddly body and big, billowing ears, and adults will find little wrong with this G-rated fare (aside from a decidedly dark turn once Despereaux is sent to Ratworld to be “eaten”). But when you sit down and compare it with other efforts currently flooding the family film market, this is one tale that just can’t hold its own.

Then there is the subplot involving the slightly deaf servant girl who’s jealously fuels the final act’s manipulative mechanics. Expertly voiced by Ullman, she’s still an obvious plot device used to manufacture unnecessary sympathy and a villainous patsy. Indeed, we wonder what she has to do with the story initially, that is until Weaver works us over again with one of her proverbial passages that just scream “important”. But when she ends up being a quasi-antagonist, brainwashed by Roscuro to take the Princess hostage, everything starts to fall apart. Oddly enough, anyone who is a fan of DiCamillo’s book will probably wonder if anything is left of the original. A quick glance at the tome’s narrative indicates significant departures here - clearly to keep the wee ones from having to experience anything like death, fear, anger, or despair.

Indeed, with its minimal bonus features and all-empowerment narrative, The Tale of Despereaux is like a new age version of a great Grimms idea. It neuters anything that could have made the movie memorable and instead goes for wholesome goodness and gold-lined imagery. That’s not to say that the results are bad, just occasionally boring. Unlike its perfectionist peers at Pixar, or the mass marketing mantras of Fox and Dreamworks, Universal wants to have it both ways. They will take a title that offered it own unique and complicated take on the qualities that make a hero and dressed it up in PC pronouncements and the best of touchy-feely intentions. Again, you will be entertained during the relatively brief running time. But like the moviemaking maxim says, there’s the best, there’s the bad, and then floating somewhere around in the middle is the bearable. The Tale is Despereaux is more than that - but not much more. 

//Mixed media
//Blogs

Ubisoft Understands the Art of the Climb

// Moving Pixels

"Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed and Grow Home epitomize the art of the climb.

READ the article